How the Reign of Christ Looks: A Farewell Sermon
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2018
On this Sunday of the church year, the week before Advent, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday – remembering with thanksgiving that Christ is the ruler of the universe and of our lives, more powerful than any earthly power. The texts for Christ the King present us with some strange, end-times imagery, looking forward to the time when Christ will return to sit on the throne and visibly rule over heaven and earth, even as they recall that Christ has always done this (as Revelation says, he is the one who is and who was and who is to come). It’s a day of tension, being both ominous, and thrilling. Really, it’s the perfect way to end the church year, and prepare ourselves to start thinking about Advent, and the first coming of God into our midst as a babe in a manger.
I also want to say a quick word about our Gospel reading, because today we jump back from Mark into the Gospel of John. This short reading places us in the midst of Jesus’ passion story, in the middle of his trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate, you may remember, was an incredibly violent and brutal ruler, known for his extreme punishments, which makes it all the stranger that in this text he seems to be trying to find a way to let Jesus off the hook! But Jesus is resolute, as he is throughout John’s Gospel, that he is exactly where he needs to be, doing what he needs to do. Their argument today is, appropriately, about whether or not Jesus is, in fact, a king, and what that kingship looks like. As many things with Jesus, it is not what the world might have thought or expected! Let’s listen and learn about what it means for Christ to be our King.
Grace to you and peace from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Well, here we are: my last sermon for you all. It is surreal to me that this is it, after seven and a half years of learning and teaching, praying and playing together, pushing each other to think more deeply about what God is doing in the world, and dreaming about what our role in God’s work might be. It has been a time full of blessings, and challenges, and joys, and disappointments, and encouragement, and learning, and most of all, a time of growth and faith – certainly for me, and I hope for you as well.
As it became clear that I would be leaving my position as your pastor, I really wrestled with when would be the right time to leave, especially with Christmas just around the corner. The way that the timing worked out, it became pretty clear that the right time to leave would be today, Christ the King Sunday. I know that leaves many disappointed, to leave right before all the Advent and Christmas events (me too, in some ways – this is my favorite season!). But it seems appropriate, not only practically in that it gives me a chance to grieve and process leaving you all before starting in a new call in the new year, but also liturgically and theologically. Next week is the beginning of Advent, a season characterized by waiting and hope, and a time when we give thanks that God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. It makes for a perfect time for a congregation to begin a period of transition and discernment, a time which will inevitably include a lot of waiting, but also will be undergirded by hope and an assurance of God’s presence.
But it’s also the perfect time to remember, with thanksgiving, that through all the changes of this life – whether a loss, or a move, or a new job, or a new pastor – one absolute constant is that Christ remains our king, our ruler, through all of that.
Christ the King Sunday is a day when we reflect upon what that means, to have Christ as our ruler, and what that reign looks like, especially compared to the reigns and rulers of the world. Jesus tells Pilate in today’s text that, “My kingdom is not from this world,” and that’s pretty good news! I would hope that God’s kingdom is something utterly different than this world, with all its tears, loss, pain, and sadness. But what exactly does that mean, for this kingdom not to be from this world? If not that, then what?
Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t think it is. I don’t think Jesus is talking about an afterlife, or what we often call “heaven,” and here’s why: because from the very beginning, Jesus was the one who brought God’s light and life into the darkness of this world. Throughout John, Jesus has been the light of the world, dwelling in and overcoming darkness – that’s what we celebrate each year at Christmas. By being that light in the darkness, Jesus brings God’s kingdom to earth, even as God’s kingdom remains something distinct from the ways of this world. And so, I think when he refers to his “kingdom,” he is referring not to some different, far-off location, but to a way of life – right now – that is of God. A way of life that is a light shining in darkness.
But the question still remains: what does that look like? I’m going to venture three suggestions. First, it looks like an abiding relationship with God. Through John’s Gospel, Jesus has made clear that living as a part of God’s kingdom means being in a relationship with God. That means, first of all, trusting that God does abide in us, and second, living by the commandment of God. It means regularly checking in with God through prayer and scripture study and faithful conversation with other Christians. We are so prone, aren’t we, to listen to the ways of the world, and let them be our guide. We want to fit in, or we want to let the world’s ways of fear and scarcity convince us to make choices or take stands that we know, in our hearts, are not what Jesus would have us do. Abiding with God is not always the easiest road, because it means letting go of some control, and sometimes even some good sense, and instead listening to where and how the Spirit might be blowing in our lives. When Christ truly reigns, we let him guide and be present in all that we do, even when it is not something our human, worldly inclinations would have chosen.
Second, living in God’s kingdom means seeking peace. I am so intrigued by Jesus’ comment to Pilate that, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” And yet just moments before this, Peter did exactly that, when Jesus was arrested. He pulled a sword, willing to fight the legion of soldiers who came for Jesus. So what Jesus must be saying here is not that his followers should have been fighting for him, but rather, that a true follower would not resort to such violence, but rather, seek a more peaceful resistance.
Ah, but it can be so much easier and more immediately satisfying just to fight, can’t it?? Especially in our divided society, where judgment of the other abounds. When someone says something awful or misguided, doesn’t it feel so good to come back with something snappy to put them in their place? Isn’t it good to fight for what we believe in, at whatever cost? And yet, Jesus’ kingdom demands a different way: not simply to avoid one another, nor to “agree to disagree,” but rather, to actively seek peace with the other. God’s kingdom requires that we seek to know and understand one another, to have compassion for one another, to be in relationship with one another, to love one another.
And that’s the real kicker for those who are citizens of God’s kingdom: we love one another. Just like Jesus has just told his disciples as he washed their feet: he commanded them to love one another, just as God has loved us. So simple to say; so difficult to live out! Not always – for example, I have found you all to be very easy to love these past seven years, even those of you with whom I know I disagree on some key issues! But it can be awfully hard to love people who have hurt us personally, or people who scare us, or whose mere presence threatens our way of life, or even just people in whom we simply aren’t that invested.
At this time of year, we often hear the catchy slogan, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” I saw a meme on Facebook this week that really nailed it. It said, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the stranger and the unwanted child, care for the ill, love your enemies.” Because those are the things Christ is about! And those are the things that citizens of Christ’s kingdom are called to be about, too. Those are the ways we love one another. Love one another – those you do like and those you don’t, those who are kind to you and those who scare you, those who look and act like you, and those who bring with them a host of unknowns. Love one another.
It sure isn’t easy. And when it isn’t, that is when we can lean on God’s own, perfect love – to both show us the way and to catch us when we fail. For God so loved the dark and sinful world, Jesus tells us, that he sent his only Son, so that we would not perish, so that we would not fall into the abyss that is all that world can promise us, but would instead have the promise of eternal life – eternal life living in the light and life of Christ. Eternal life living in Christ’s kingdom.
You know, there’s one more reason this was the perfect Sunday to leave you, and that is that this is Thanksgiving weekend, the time we set aside to give thanks for all that God has graced us with. The biggest thing to be thankful for, of course, is exactly that love of which we are assured through Christ.
But as we bid farewell to each other today, my heart is full of thanksgiving also for each of you, and for all that you have brought to my life. I am thankful for how you welcomed me, and then my family, into your life so warmly. I am thankful for your grace and understanding as I went through two experiences with cancer – for too many meals to count, for telling me, “Go home and take care of yourself!” and for the ways you covered for me. I am thankful for how you surrounded my children with love and faith, always asking about them and gushing over them, and being a beautiful community of Christ as they were each baptized, Grace at Bethlehem and Isaac at St. Martin. I am thankful for your willingness to express when something I said or did was meaningful to you, but also when it wasn’t, when you needed more from me, because by this you taught me what it means to listen and respond and grow more faithfully into this strange and wondrous calling. I am even thankful for the times you made me really mad, because it was during these times that I was pushed toward the sort of self-reflection that helped me to grow the most, as a Christian and as a pastor. It was during these times that I learned what it means to live in Christ’s kingdom of relationship, peace, and enduring love. I am thankful for every prayer offered, every Eucharist shared, every baptism celebrated, every Bible text wrestled with. I am, absolutely, thankful for you.
And I will continue to be thankful to you, for helping to form me into the person and pastor I am today, and for teaching me as much about God’s love as any training I got in seminary. Thank you, people of Bethlehem/St. Martin, and thank God for you. Bless you as you continue growing into living in Christ’s kingdom of hope, peace, and love.
Let us pray… Christ our King, in this ever changing world, you and your love and your reign remain our constant. I ask your presence with this congregation as they embark on a season of waiting, watching, and hoping. I ask that you would assure them of your abiding presence. Keep us all focused on living into your kingdom, trusting that your love will guide and support us all along. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.